When Will I See You Again?

The catwalk’s homage to historical vogues

It is often remarked that a picture is worth a thousand words. The fashion photographs of New York Times’ octogenarian Bill Cunningham, not to mention the multitude of Instagram, Pininterest and Tumblr pages that are routinely updated with shots of the latest sartorial styles, gives credence to this adage.[i] Recent photographs from London Collections: Men and Pitti Uomo provide clues about the influences that have inspired next season’s collections. The cut, colour, material and texture of the clothes that were modelled at these events reveal that many designers have borrowed heavily from the past. In some cases, they have gone so far as to revive vintage patterns and silhouettes without any form of contemporary embellishment. Three of the more compelling trends centred on the suit, the coat and pocket wear.

Suits

The Suit

It is hardly surprising that the suit, which has provided the structure for men’s formal wear for at least the past 200 years, featured prominently at the recent fashion shows.[ii] The material and silhouette of the suits on show drew heavily from two particular decades, the 1920s and the 1950s. The prevalence of three-piece suits and plus fours in grey and brown cloth, argyle socks and Fair Isle sweaters in navy and green, as well as flat caps, recalled men’s fashion from the early years of the twentieth century. The Duke of Windsor would have been pleased, and not at all incongruous.[iii] Peak lapels and double-breasted waistcoats in a lighter palette of colours, along with the occasional fedora, seemed to recall the 1950s. If David Gandy (pictured above) looked like an extra from Gangster Squad, those wearing sweaters and plus fours would have blended seamlessly with the cast of Broadwalk Empire.[iv]

Coats

The Coat

When it came to the coat, designers seemed to have reached further back in time. The cut, deep-colour and opulent use of fur trims on the coats modelled for Canali and Comme des Garçons was reminiscent of the Victorian era. (The observation may be unwelcome, but the wide lapels in contrasting colours also bore a striking resemblance to great coats worn by officers of the German Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine during the Second World War.) The textured and embroidered fabrics that were used by Comme des Garçons and Dolce and Gabbana, in particular, were also similar to the three-quarter length fur-trimmed coats that featured in Prada’s fall and winter collection last year.

Pocket Wear

Pocket Wear

The influence of Prada’s 2012 fall and winter collection was also evident in the curious abundance of pocket (and lapel) ornamentation. Where Prada had adorned its Victorian-cum-military style coats with pens and tie-pins, which featured the bust of a Roman centurion, attendees at Pitti Uomo showed a certain amount of ingenuity by filling the pockets of their outwear garments with gloves, pocket squares and glasses (the key was to make one of the arms of the glasses visible, by hooking it over the jacket’s breast pocket). This detail on the upper left side of the suit and coat was a twenty-first century, and thus pacific, interpretation of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century military tunics that were decorated with rows of medals. There seem to be two schools of thought on why military and civic decorations are invariably worn on the recipient’s left. As ever, one version is romantic, the other is prosaic. Decorations were either worn on the left to be over the heart, presumably to draw attention to the sacrifice made in achieving the honour, or, they were worn on the left to avoid getting caught on the sash that supported the sword. Apparently, swords were traditionally worn on the left of the body because most officers were right handed. The weight of the sword was supported by a scabbard, or sash, that was worn over the right shoulder. The sash made the placement of medals on the right side impractical, if not impossible.[v] Whatever the reason, the present interest in decoration on the left side of the upper body hints at a fascination with military influences, and thus, the importance of masculine symbols. Men may be now be prepared to acknowledge their interest in clothes, but what they wear evidently still needs to be coded with references to their gender that extol the virtues of physical prowess.

For me, the main theme to emerge through the photographs of London Collections: Men and Pitti Uomo is that the past continues to play a significant and dynamic role in determining contemporary clothing styles. Seeing really is believing.


[i] For the current episode of ‘On the Street with Bill Cunningham’, see:  www.nytimes.com/video/2013/02/01/fashion/100000002039724/bill-cunningham-old-hat.html. Accessed: 2-ij-2013; http://satori.al/; www.portlandprepster.com.

[ii] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 4.

[iii] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 58-65.

[iv] ‘Shopping Snapshots: Jan. 31’. www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/01/31/fashion/20130131-BROWSING.html?ref=style. Accessed: 2-ij-2013.

[v] For some discussion on this topic, see: http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100202121023AAXHx4Y. Accessed: 2-ij-2013.

Fashion’s Past & Present

There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis where the stretched limo of cyber capitalist Eric Packer is pelted with rocks and smeared with paint and human excrement as it meanders conspicuously through a crowd of anti-capitalist protesters at Times Square. Safe within the limo, Packer and his chief of theory Vija Kinski reflect coolly on the violence outside, as a man sets fire to his body. Packer is momentarily transfixed, but Kinski is unfazed. Her chilling verdict is that this form of protest, much like the causes that have spawned it, ‘is not original’. The exchange between Packer and Kinski, which occurs in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, encapsulates a profound sense of disenfranchisement with the modern economic system. This sentiment was remarkably prescient for a book published in 2003. The recent film adaptation of Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson, tapped into the financially frightened zeitgeist and was marketed as ‘the first film about our new millennium’.

Original Sin?

VogueA harsh critic might offer a similarly bleak verdict of the financial behemoth that is the global fashion industry, which is estimated to be worth $1,306 billion per annum.[i] In a recent interview, Valentino Garavani seemed to bemoan the increased commercialisation of an industry that he has worked in since a boy of seventeen: ‘Everything has changed; fashion became a profession, a money-making career.’[ii] As it has grown, the fashion industry has fought hard against accusations of exploitation – of models and child manufacturers – and is periodically accused of a lack of originality in its drive to sell more wares. In a revealing, albeit minor, way this point comes through in The September Issue – and it’s parody The Devil Wears Prada – when Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington debate whether certain combinations of clothes have been photographed for Vogue before:

GC: Well there’s two coats here and I’m sort of undecided about them.

AW: It is similar to the one we did in July.

GC: It’s not because you’re thinking of the one we shot and didn’t run. I’ve shot them twice, but we have not had them in the magazine. The coat didn’t run.

Originality poses particular problems for clothing because sartorial decisions are so prominent. As I have indicated before, people generally seek to be individual, rather than different.[iii] What we wear reveals so much about us, so we try commensurately hard to get it right. When choosing an outfit a myriad of decisions – conscious and subconscious – are made, based on the ‘look’ that we want to achieve and a withering self-interrogation of how we think people will actually perceive us wearing it. Adopting a new style of garment or a range of atypical colours can make an outfit novel, but if the cumulative effect is too different, too removed from our usual shapes and palette, the effect can be nugatory. I still rue the day that I thought an apple green roll-neck was a good purchase (although I have said before that I am colour-blind). By contrast, perpetually abiding by a tried and tested look becomes worn and dated. The best option, as Tom Ford observed in an interview with Bridget Foley, is for fashion to be new and old simultaneously:

BF: Invention is rare today. Reinvention is more the method of the moment, no?

TF: From music to film, everything has been about sampling, recycling. I mean, vintage clothes – people wear vintage now to the Oscars […] We seem to have some deep-seated need for familiarity, and at the same time, an obsession with newness. Culturally, there needs to be a quick understanding and a sense of comfort with things that hit us. We still want something new and fresh, but somehow if it can be something old yet something new, that’s the best thing. We can accept it quickly, which is why all these old brands are so important right now. It’s part of this trend of taking the familiar and making it new – an old brand like Gucci, an old brand like Vuitton, an old brand like Dior – and transforming it.[iv]

But designers also need to take care because the desire for ‘quick understanding’ and acceptance means that they too are pigeonholed, as Ford explains:

We do get typecast. If Lee [McQueen] sent out a collection that was like one of mine, you’d think it was dull and boring, too commercial. We all get typecast. Miuccia Prada is the intelligent designer; Tom is the sexy designer; Yves was the delicate, fragile designer who wore his heart on his sleeve. It’s just how a lot of us construct ourselves to the outside world.[v]

Familiarity Breeds … Fashion

Familiarity in fashion is important because it provides that reassuring sense of the past that we evidently crave whilst also offering a frame of reference, a tested – better yet, proven – approach to wearing a particular outfit that can be subtly tweaked, just so much that it becomes our own. This helps to explain why designers have frequently looked to the past to find inspiration for their creations and why fashion companies invoke the past to provide potential consumers with the assurance of familiarity to buy their products. A recent squabble between two perfumers over Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, shows how important fashion’s past is to its present. Dior’s current television campaign uses doyens from the golden age of Hollywood to market J’Adore perfume.

In the one and a half-minute film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a tardy and flustered Charlize Theron arrives back-stage at a Dior fashion show, which is taking place in one of Louis XIV’s grandiose palaces. As Theron rushes to slip into her shimmering gold dress and head out to the catwalk, the camera pans around the dressing room to reveal Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe waiting to strut their stuff. For a perfume launched in 1999 to claim such heritage maybe unconvincing, but few who watch this glitzy confection will be counting the years, I expect. If Annaud has done his job, audiences will be as rapt about J’Adore as the CGIed Marilyn Monroe, who is shown cradling a bottle of the fragrance as the film reaches its climax. With a tad more legitimacy, perhaps, Chanel have recently used photographs, interviews and audio to capture Marilyn Monroe’s apparent, and oft-repeated, preference for Chanel No. 5, of which she famously wore five drops in bed. Invoking Monroe to promote Chanel No. 5, the perfumer has been quite explicit that this enhances the ‘legend’ of the scent.

Heritage is equally important for the tailors along London’s Savile Row, even though they are selling a very different product and, in some cases, use their past in a less conspicuous manner, which can sometimes manifest itself as a barrier to potential consumers. Such is the illustrious history of many of the Row’s tailors, who have clothed royalty from Buckingham Palace to Hollywood, that they have often eschewed any form of advertising. Even in Beau Brummell’s day, ‘the tradesmen of the area around Savile Row … did not put anything in their shop-window or a nameplate on the door. It was a question of exclusivity and the nuances of class.’[vi] And if the advent of Abercrombie and Fitch on the Row is the sign of things to come, a certain amount of sartorial reserve – even snobbery – might not be a bad thing.[vii] Things have changed somewhat, though, largely because of Richard James, who was the first of the Savile Row bespoke tailors to advertise in men’s style magazines and who, in 2000, ‘really went for it’ by obtaining the lease for the largest shop along the Row and installing large windows ‘that showed the world what we were doing inside. It was the opposite of the traditional Savile Row tailor and that’s not a criticism.’[viii] In this sense, the extent to which a fashion brand engages with its past has a profound impact on its modern image, its products and, thus, its customers. A fashion company’s past can promote new business or preserve that which already exists. An illustrious past can be championed, as in the case of Tom Ford, who reintroduced bamboo and the horse bit to Gucci, or it can be used to shroud a company in a mystique to maintain a sense of exclusivity and privilege.

marilyn-monroe-chanel-no-5

 

Oriental Excess

The management of fashion’s past has had a significant impact in the East, which is set to account for nearly half of the world’s total outlay on luxury goods by 2020.[ix] Scores of high-flying Chinese have bought western brands to flaunt their newfound wealth, sometimes ill advisedly: when government officials were snapped wearing £1,500 Hermès belts, there was a veritable media storm. Initially, well-established brands that conferred heritage and legitimacy on the nouveax riches sold well in the East, but no longer. Burberry, which has sixty-six stores in China, and Louis Vuitton, which has thirty-nine, have become ubiquitous and consequently less desirable. By contrast, ‘stealth-wealth brands’ like Prada and Bottega Veneta, are faring better.[x] A look at when these four companies were founded may seem to throw the argument about the importance of heritage in fashion on its head. In ascending order of age, the companies are as follows: Bottega Veneta (1966), Prada (1913), Burberry (1856), Louis Vuitton (1854). But the buying preferences of the Chinese recall the observation of Tom Ford; namely, that consumers like their clothes and clothing apparel to be at once old and new. Whilst Burberry and Louis Vuitton are considerably older than Prada and Bottega Veneta, their marketing is now as commonplace as the scarves and leather holdalls they peddle. For the design-conscious Chinese, these companies are old in two senses: their length of operation and their length of trade on the streets of China. The former is acceptable, but the latter is not, hence the popularity of old and ‘new’ brands like Prada. In a society that is becoming saturated with brands, subtly is key. As Gemma Soames notes, ‘The cool crowd tend to leave the obvious labels behind – Louis Vuitton almost marks you out as a novice.’[xi]

Gendered History

If there is a slight difference in attitude regarding fashion’s past between the East and the West, there is a greater contrast between the genders. Trends in men’s clothing generally seem to eschew the past, which is often regarded as frivolous. Women’s clothing, however, seems to have a more dynamic and positive relationship with past styles. If Charlie Porter is right, this could be because men do not share ‘the female romance for the catwalk.’[xii] Aspects of male dress are making a comeback – the pocket square and tie pin are obvious examples – and today sees the launch of London Collections: Men,[xiii] but the influence that fashion icons like Beau Brummell, the Count d’Orsay and Edward VII possess over modern men’s style stems largely from the characters they were and the lives they led. Dressing like these ‘heroic’ figures is an incidental step towards being like them, which often seems to be a greater concern for men. I doubt the pocket square and tiepin would have made such a convincing comeback if it had not first been worn by men’s men like Dan Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Even Beau Brummell, trendsetter extraordinaire, remarked that ‘it is folly that is the making of me.’[xiv] By contrast, the women icons of yesteryear, women like Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, who are gracing the screen once again thanks to Dior, have perhaps always seemed enigmatic. Their dresses and accessories attract attention because of their intrinsic beauty and workmanship, rather than because of who is modelling them. Whilst this observation may not be a universal truism, it shouldn’t surprise that fashion’s past is viewed in a gendered perspective when that is how fashion’s present is seen.

tdesigns

Either way, the fashion brand that ignores its past, clearly jeopardises its present. Fashion brands that lack the familiarity and legitimacy of heritage could do worse than take a leaf out of Thom Browne’s book. Browne’s eponymous collections appear to derive from historical vogues. His monotone aesthetic recalls the sartorial code of Beau Brummell and his eyewear range looks as though it is taken straight from the eighteenth-century factory, price tags notwithstanding of course.[xv]


[i] E. Van Keymeulen & L. Nash, ‘Fashionably Late’, Intellectual Property Magazine (Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012), 53. www.cov.com/files/Publication/8fc11e54-27e2-4da3-9323-0663dd0a5746/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/45a27275-df92-475b-9e11-11154b0c1061/Fashionably%20Late.pdf.

[ii] ‘The Inventory: Valentino’, FT Weekend Magazine (January 5/6, 2013), 7.

[iii] ‘Clothes are not just for Christmas’, December, 20 2012.

[iv] Varia, Tom Ford (London, 2004), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30.

[vi] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 204.

[vii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, Life & Arts: Financial Times (January 5/6, 2013), 1.

[viii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 199-200.

[ix] G. Soames, ‘Orient Express’, Style: The Sunday Times (18 November, 2012), 35.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 36.

[xii] Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, 2.

[xiv] Kelly, Beau Brummell, 207

[xv] Ibid., 186-208; www.thombrowneeyewear.com.

Through a Glass…

 

If the eyes are truly the windows to our soul, it is surprising that spectacles have generally suffered from a bad press in the West. Eyewear is currently in vogue, regardless of whether corrective lens are necessary, but it has not always been so, especially for men.

 …ASOS

James Bond. Source: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/14367

The current popularity of eyewear has undoubtedly been influenced by the ubiquity of bespectacled characters in movies and television dramas: Oliver Proudlock, a posh twenty-something in the reality show Made in Chelsea, sports a pair of tortoise shell frames, seemingly when the mood takes him. The process of adapting books into blockbusters has helped the pre-pubescent Harry Potter and the wizened master spy George Smiley to universalise eyewear, if not necessarily their specific frame styles.[i] Even James Bond has contributed to the cause. Pierce Brosnan wore glasses for the Bond franchise’s nineteenth offering, The World is Not Enough. Admittedly, 007’s specs were Q-Branch issue blue tinted x-ray lens, but they fooled casino punters, who appeared to regard them as a modish dress accessory, befitting of a debonair Brit in black tie. The specific preference for thick-rimmed frames has probably been encouraged, certainly normalised, by a slew of Geek-Chic American sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory and Ugly Betty. The idea that dramas of this ilk would inspire spectacle wearing seems counter intuitive. The protagonists in these shows are archetypal losers. Rather like Clark Kent’s frames, the glasses worn by these characters imply physical weakness and hint at inner neuroses and anxiety; all of which is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase, ‘never hit a man with glasses’.

Buddy Holly. Source: http://www.rockbackingtracks.co.uk/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&products_id=781But our interaction with the screen, big and small, is complicated. Seeing an item of clothing on television or in a movie can enhance its status, even elevate it from sartorial obscurity and derision, especially if it is worn by a character we love; and we all love Leonard Hofstadter, Ph.D., and Betty Suarez. Anne Hollander uses the example of Jack Nicholson’s watch cap in One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest to explain this phenomenon.[ii] The cap was a common dress accessory prior to the film’s release in 1976, but after Nicholson’s appearance everyone wanted it, to achieve ‘a sense of glamour by association.’[iii] In the world of eyewear, Buddy Holly’s shiny black Mexican imports caused a sensation in the 1950s, even though they were purchased for practicality; his vision was 20/800 in both eyes.[iv] According to Gregory DelliCaprini Jr., fashion editor of www.billboard.com, Holly’s specs even encouraged stars to become more glam:

Without Buddy Holly’s glasses, [pop-culture experts] say, the world would likely never have seen John Lenon in his granny-style glasses nor Elton John in his oversize frames. For that matter, it might never have seen Madonna in her cone-shaped bra or Lady Gaga in her meat dress.[v]

Steve Jobs. Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2012/10/03/untold-stories-about-steve-jobs-friends-and-colleagues-share-their-memories/This may be claiming too much, but the clamour for celebrity looks and ephemera cannot be denied. Lunor frames similar to those worn by Steve Jobs were reported to be selling ‘more briskly’, following the announcement of his death.[vi] The apparent scramble to possess a piece of Jobs’ image, even if in replica, is not so different to the ransacking of episcopal and royal palaces that followed the death of a bishop or prince in pre-modern societies. The death of these political leaders ‘opened up a fissure in the fabric of society’[vii] and created a ‘marginal period’[viii] before a successor was appointed. Possessing, or destroying, objects of the recently deceased enabled individual feelings of anxiety to be collectively expressed. The fact that people now to react to a celebrity’s death in a similar way reveals much about the entrenchment of celebrity culture in modern society.

Hollander’s research hints at another reason for the surge in spectacle wearing. She argues – convincingly – that the advent of film and photography has made us more discriminating. Sharper resolution achieved through technological advances has made us adept, and thus increasingly inclined, to ‘read’ clothes and brands on film as signifiers of income, occupation and background. And as life imitates art, so we apply these forensic skills to the sartorial choices of friends and colleagues. Wearing styles of glasses that are popularly regarded as fringe – even wearing glasses at all – could therefore provide a means of becoming ‘undetectable’ or finding sartorial freedom.[ix]

…Darkly

Colonel Sponsz. Source: http://tintin.wikia.com/wiki/Colonel_SponszEyewear has often been portrayed negatively in the West, chiefly because of its association with bookish learning and old age. For the same reasons, the reception of glasses in the East has tended to be more positive, following Confucian teachings.[x] In a previous post I suggested that fictional villains often have facial hair; well, they also wear glasses (beware the character that sports both!).[xi] Of the twenty-nine James Bond villains that have appeared in film, two were bespectacled (Max Zorin and Elliot Carver). Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Le Chiffre suffered from optical deficiencies. Nazi officers are frequently depicted with a monocle, whether in Hergé’s Tintin or Hogan’s Heroes.[xii] In Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, Baron von Pregnitz (‘Kuno’), wears a monocle, which adds to his slightly unsettling demeanour.

The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:

‘Excuse me. Do you know Naples?’

‘No. I’ve never been there.’

‘Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.’

‘Perhaps so,’ I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink, well-shaven face by means of some horrible surgical operation.

Mr Norris Changes Trains. Christopher Isherwood.

Choosing not to wear glasses in public is probably the most prevalent example of someone suffering for their style. Adolf Hitler wore glasses in private but never for official engagements. His speeches were written on a special typewriter with larger letter stamps. Leading Nazis wore spectacles (and monocles), but it was important that Hitler’s figure, which became increasingly deified after he proclaimed himself Führer in 1934, bore no hint of physical fragility.[xiii] In at least one case of eyewear extremism, looks have even killed. Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Horatio Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar, died of bowel problems supposedly caused by leaning over maps when he should have been wearing his spectacles. Even John Lenon, whose bespectacled portrait has become near iconic – more so following the release of Yoko Ono’s 1981 album Season of Glass, which featured his blood-flecked frames on the cover – never wore glasses when performing live.[xiv]

… Made in Italy

It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising if we think about the history of other dress accessories (if spectacles are dress accessories?[xv]) and people’s desire for individuality, that eyewear should have started to become unpopular at the moment it attained popularity. Reading glasses were developed during the thirteenth century. They were worn by clerics, and thus scholars, and fashioned from exquisite materials, including ivory, tortoise and precious metal. Refinements to the frame and the use of inexpensive metals made glasses readily available across Europe. As the lustre of academia and quality workmanship faded, the ‘mystique’ of eyewear went too. ‘Glasses came to be seen as a crutch.’[xvi] Optometrists’ association with St Jerome, whom they had adopted as their patron saint, did much to reinforce this dismissive verdict. St Jerome was famous for completing a Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) from Greek. Further developments in the manufacture of frames, particularly the creation of celluloid in the mid-nineteenth century and Optyl in the mid-twentieth century, enabled more dynamic, anthropometric and colourful frames to be made.[xvii] These technological innovations created new markets for sunglasses, which were popularised by Hollywood actors and the nonchalant JFK,[xviii] but the multi-colour and multi-dimensional frames worn by the likes of Elton John[xix] and Dame Edna Everage[xx] revealed how dowdy prescription spectacles were.

Steve McQueen. Source: http://www.elawood.com/2010/09/persol-po-714-steve-mcqueen.html

The idea of commissioning known designers to create eponymously branded frames generated a new clamour for specs and gave birth to the modern eyewear business.[xxi] But many Western producers struggled to compete with Asian competitors, who saturated the market with cheaper variants. The result was a realignment of the eyewear business: ‘Since the Asians couldn’t be beaten on price, a new strategy had to be devised – a few manufacturers decided to gamble on moving the category upmarket and competing on prestige.’[xxii] By geographical accident, optometrists located in the north of Italy were best placed to benefit from this commercial soul searching. Situated in the mountains, in close proximity to the motor industry and basking in sunshine, Italian eyewear manufacturers led the field in making aviation and motoring lens. One of the oldest and most prestigious of the Italian eyewear companies is Persol. The company’s name is derived from its products, which were per il sole, ‘for the sun’.[xxiii] Celebrity endorsements from the likes of Steve McQueen and shrewd product placement in movies like The Italian Job, did much to generate a cult status for Persol and Italian eyewear in general. Many eyewear companies boast that their frames are ‘hand made in Italy.’ A newer brand like Illesteva, which markets its products as both contemporary and classic, has gone a step further by proclaiming their frames are designed in New York and made in Italy.

… Brightly?

I wear glasses and enjoy doing so.  My expanding collection of frames includes, Cutler & Gross,[xxiv] Illesteva,[xxv] Persol,[xxvi] Prada,[xxvii] Ray Ban[xxviii] & Tom Ford.[xxix]  The current ‘geek gone cool’ vogue, which is encouraging a return to vinyl records, Fairisle tanktops and slicked hair, has done much to promote, or at least prepare the ground for, the wearing of eyeglasses among a larger number of people. The fact that specs are slightly nerdy is, currently, less of an issue and the longer that bespectacled nerds appear on screen, the longer this will remain so. The present reverence for the past is also encouraging many eyewear brands to re-issue vintage frames – think of Oliver Peoples and their ‘Gregory Peck’ range – or, in the case of newer manufacturers like Thom Browne, to launch vintage-inspired frames.[xxx] This cyclical trend reveals how important history is to fashion. Past epochs are easily distinguishable from the clothes that were then worn. Harnessing or adapting these styles makes and maintains traditions and legitimacy, which has always been an important concern for clothing. The significance of tradition and legitimacy – choosing when to wear frames; choosing a style of frame that was worn by a celebrity or is made by a particular brand – seems to be a more pressing issue for the bespectacled because glasses make such an obvious physical statement. They proclaim, possibly more immediately than any other prop save crutches and bandages, a bodily impairment. For this reason, a history of eyewear also reveals how the sartorial kudos of eyewear can plummet. And if history does repeat itself, the current popularity of glasses means that a decline and fall in spectacle wearing may not far off as people seek a different means to project their individuality.

Thom Browne sunglasses. Source: http://www.esquire.co.uk/2011/10/the-launch-thomas-brown-eyewear/

 


[i] J. Mullan, ‘Ten of the best pairs of glasses in literature’, Guardian Review (Saturday, 30 January 2010), 11.

[ii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975), 305. Also see her comments on the mini skirt, 360.

[iii] Ibid., 305.

[iv] C. Passy, ‘Framing a Young Rocker: The Man Who Picked Glasses for Buddy Holly’. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203833104577072583452885006.html?mod=slideshow_overlay_mod#. Accessed: 8/xij/2012.

[v] Ibid.

[vii] S. Bertelli, The King’s Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, tr. R. Burr Litchfield (Pennsylvannia, 2001), 39.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 346-8.

[x] M. Lipow, Eyewear; Brillendesign; Lunettes (Cologne, 2011), 14.

[xi] ‘Hair Today and … Tomorrow’. October, 14 2012.

[xii] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 204.

[xiii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London, 2002), 44-8; I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998), 280-81.

[xiv] N. Handley, Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics (London, 2011), 61.

[xv] Neil Handley observes that many optometrists abhorred the fact that eyewear, which they considered to be a medical instrument, was becoming freely available on the high street, sold by a new breed of ‘shoptician.’ Handley, Cult Eyewear, 7-17.

[xvi] Lipow, Eyewear, 12.

[xvii] Ibid., 71-2; 265-66.

[xviii] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 226.

[xix] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 117.

[xx] Ibid., 31.

[xxi] Lipow, Eyewear,130.

[xxii] Ibid., 270.

[xxiii] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 44-7.

To Label a Point

hey bozoA few weeks ago, I went along to an interview with the children’s author Lauren Child, which had been organised as part of the Sherborne Literary Festival.[i] The discussion was meant to focus on text and image, two topics of personal interest. Instead, it focused on Child’s life and her new book, two topics of lesser interest. The promotional material for Child’s novel, Ruby Redfort: Take Your Last Breath, was impressive in its eclecticism; there were bookmarks, posters and postcards. There were also badges, which displayed the slogan ‘hey bozo’. These words meant little because I have never read any of Child’s books, but I dutifully took a badge when offered; it would have been rude not to. Whether it was the colloquial and ungrammatical slogan, or the sheer novelty of being given a pin badge when I was clearly an incongruous attendee at this gathering – for one thing, I had no children in tow – the object played on mind. In part, my reverie was fuelled by nostalgia. I was reminded of a time when badges were genuinely fun. Really! When I was younger, I received badges on birthday cards. Sporadically, I also collected golly badges by saving up tokens from jars of Robertson’s jam, when it wasn’t politically incorrect to do so.[ii] In recent years, I have tended to see the badge in an overtly political, and less innocent, context, which is undoubtedly a consequence of getting older.

Individuality & Incorporation

During the past decade an increasing number of (male) world leaders have started to wear a lapel pin, depicting the flag of their country. The American president is probably the most notable example, and Barack Obama has learned the hard way. By not wearing a flag pin in debates prior to his nomination as the democratic presidential candidate in 2008, Obama provoked a series of hard-line questions about his motivations. Apparently, the Senator had worn a pin after 9/11, but stopped when he saw badge-wearing Americans acting in an unpatriotic way.

“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead I’m going to try to tell American people what I believe … and hopefully that will be testimony to my patriotism.”

Senator Obama

Gary Oldman. Source: www.prada.com

As president, Obama now wears a pin badge every day.[iii] Time columnist Gilbert Cruz observes that ‘short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism’.[iv] British prime ministers do not wear a flag lapel pin – perhaps because of the periodic debates about devolution or concerns that it might appear too Eurosceptic – but the badge still has a role to play in UK politics. In 2009, disillusioned cabinet minister Hazel Blears wore a brooch shortly after her resignation, to devastating effect. Her enamelled accessory depicted a ship on stormy seas containing the words ‘Rocking the boat’.[v]

The prevalence of the pin badge in politics may explain its increased appearance on catwalks and within fashion catalogues. In March, Prada ran an extensive campaign with actors William Defoe, Garrett Hedlund, Gary Oldman and Jamie Bell in nineteenth-century inspired outerwear. All of the men wore plexiglas lapel pins featuring the bust of a centurion.[vi] Lanvin’s collection of floral tiepins has continued to grow and now includes carnations, roses and pansies.[vii] In a number of men’s style guides, synthetic boutonnières have been given the ‘thumbs up’ for the forthcoming festive season.[viii]

To Be or Not To Be

The history of the badge really begins in the medieval period. According to various accounts, in June 1096 the charismatic prince Bohemond of Taranto tore up his cloak to fashion cross-shaped badges for those willing to liberate Jerusalem. The knights and paupers who embarked on the First Crusade were known as the crucesignati; men ‘signed with the cross’.[ix] During the twelfth century, badges became available to penitents on completion of a pilgrimage. Pilgrims’ badges were supposed to possess therapeutic powers, but in practice these pewter trinkets were little more than souvenirs that provided lucrative revenue streams for religious centres.[x] Members of secular confraternities also issued badges. Such was the ubiquity of this little dress accessory that familiarity eventually bred contempt. Badges ‘to mock others’ pretensions’ were issued in jest and scorn. The reason Londoners are known as ‘Cockneys’ stems from a derisory badge made within the metropolis that depicted a cock laying an egg, which implied ‘townspeople’s ignorance of the natural world.’[xi]

But the popularity of the badge did not wane. The advent of heraldry and the establishment of chivalric orders during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to a profusion of insignia. Members of each order had their own distinctive emblem. The twenty-six knights who formed England’s Order of the Garter wore a badge depicting St George slaying the dragon.[xii] More generally, lords used badges to identify their followers. The Dunstable swan, a gold and white enamel brooch in the shape of a swan with a crown around its neck, is an exquisite example and shows how technically accomplished badges had become by the early fifteenth century.[xiii] The time and money lavished on this jewel indicates the importance of badges as social signifiers. Of course, this was not always a good thing, for badges indicated exclusion as much belonging.  In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews were to wear yellow badges to distinguish them from Christians. This is the same colour of badge that Jews were to wear seven centuries later in Nazi concentration camps. To convey a succinct message about faith, military power, social status or social exclusion, the role of the badge in medieval and modern times is therefore not dissimilar.

Dunstable Swan. Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_dunstable_swan_jewel.aspx

Universally Unique

The badge or lapel pin is an intriguing dress accessory because it proclaims, at one and the same time, individuality and incorporation. The wearing of a badge denotes adherence to a greater cause and the membership of, or rejection from, a specific community, but it does so in way that is personal and independent. The immediacy of the message contained on a badge and the badge’s ephemeral nature – it can be easily removed and replaced with another emblem – make it an effective broadcaster of views and inherently malleable. This flexibility has undoubtedly contributed to the badge revival that various fashion writers have begun to comment on.[xiv] This incipient fashion trend also reveals much, as with any fashion trend, about people’s need to feel individual. And here the badge may possess an advantage. The desire to be unique is universal, so attempts to be different often produce similar, if not identical, results. The U.S.P. of the badge is that people have the opportunity to sport daring political or social slogans and imagery when they feel confident to do so, and when they lose their nerve or choose to conform, they can consign the accessory to a deep pocket.

In the short-term, I fear that all of this is leading to the fact that many men will be wearing boutonnières throughout the festive season at black tie gatherings. I do have the ‘hey bozo’ badge though…


[ii] The golly badges were issued until 2002. For a dose of nostalgia, or to understand what I am referring to, see www.gollycorner.co.uk. Accessed: 25-xj-2012.

[iii] G. Cruz, ‘A Brief History of the Flag Lapel Pin’. www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1820023,00.html. Accessed: 28-xj-2012.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] A. McSmith, ‘Pint-sized assassin with Brown in her sights’. The Independent (4 June, 2009), 6.

[viii] ‘A Man and the Boutonniere’. http://artofmanliness.com/2010/07/09/boutonniere-buttonhole/. Accessed: 29-xj-2012; ‘The Hierarchy of Affection’, Esquire’s Big Black Book (Fall 2012), 159.

[ix] C. Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (London, 2006), 71.

[x] D.A. Hinton, Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain (Oxford, 2005), 193-4.

[xi] Ibid., 195.

[xii] B.L. Wild, ‘Order of the Garter’, Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Leiden, 2012), 397-98; A. Mansfield, Ceremonial Costume: Court, civil & civic costume from 1660 to the present day (London, 1980), 50.

[xiii] Hinton, Gold & Gilt, pp. 220-21.

[xiv] ‘Fashion Statement: Badges’. www.trendsforthemasses.com/2011/04/fashion-statement-badges.html. Accessed: 1-xij-2012.